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Dispatches From The Picket Lines, Day 22: 30 Rock Protest Draws Big Names & Huge Crowds In NYC

As the WGA strike entered its fourth week, Tony Kushner swore, Steve Earle sang, Wanda Sykes led union chants and Busy Philipps told CEO jokes for more than 1,000 demonstrators and hundreds of onlookers who filled the street in front of NBCUniversal headquarters Tuesday in Midtown Manhattan.

With a starry speakers list, celebrities dotting the crowd and turnout from several local labor unions, a “Rally at the Rock” outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza in support of striking movie and television writers filled one barricaded side of West 49th Street between 5th and 6th avenues — the equivalent of three city blocks — with cheering, sign-waving protestors who stayed for more than two hours. It was the largest turnout for any event organized by members of the Writers Guild of America East since the strike against film and television producers began May 2, a WGA representative told Deadline.

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WGA Strike 30 Rock picket
The WGA picket line outside NBCUniversal headquarters in Manhattan was about 1,000 strong at its peak Tuesday.

“We’ve get every frickin’ union in the city of New York in the house!” WGA Executive Director Lowell Peterson, the last of more than a dozen speakers, raved in his turn at the podium before turning the stage over to singer-songwriter and Screen Actors Guild member Steve Earle, who closed out the rally by performing voice-and-guitar versions of his songs, “Union, God and Country” and “Way Down in the Hole.”

Here is the singer-songwriter-guitarist, part-time actor and hardcore troubadour explaining why he was on the line (and because the rebranded Max went live today, do yourself a favor and stream some Treme):

On a sunny late morning and early afternoon, with writers, actors, comedians, union chiefs and other speakers delivering jokes, applause lines and chants, the mood was upbeat while the message was serious. Speaker after speaker linked the striking writers to labor struggles in other trades where working conditions are deteriorating and automation is putting jobs at risk.

“Your fight is our fight” was a promise made to applause and cheers in separate speeches by two union leaders on Tuesday: Mario Cilento, president of the 2.5-million member New York State AFL-CIO; and Stuart Applebaum, president of the 100,000-member Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

The dragging of studio executives was more lighthearted but still barbed in other remarks. Philipps, star of Dawson’s Creek and Freaks and Geeks, read jokes from writer friends — and one she said was from her ex-husband, writer and producer Mark Silverstein — mocking Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav, who was jeered on Sunday by Boston University graduates who chanted “Pay your writers!” at him during his commencement speech.

Philipps described Zaslav as “the genius who looked at HBO Max and decided people really just want the modifier,” and she said his last name “does sound like a medication for yeast infection: Ask your doctor if Zaslav is right for you.”

RELATED: HBO Max Is Now Just Max: Everything You Need To Know Including Programs, Pricing & More

Sal Gentile, a writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers, took the HBO Max rebranding further. “They said America couldn’t do it, but we finally did it: We came up with a name dumber than Quibi.”

Strike captain Warren Leight got the crowd to send a message to the WBD chief exec:

The crowd also heard from a quartet of Democrats including former U.S. senator and NBC Saturday Night Live writer Al Franken, who said, “I don’t want to make this political, but Republicans hate unions.” Standing outside the building where he worked for years before entering politics, Franken referenced striking writers’ fears about artificial intelligence, telling a groaner of a joke that he said was written by a computer: “What happened to the computer that was crossing the street? It was run over by a self-driving Tesla.”

Al Franken
Al Franken

Cynthia Nixon, the Sex and The City actress and former Democratic candidate for New York governor, reeled off statistics about writers’ declining earnings and wrapped up with a string of famous film and television lines that doubled as examples of writer brilliance and inspirational morale-boosting.

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. The truth is out there. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” she said, quoting NetworkThe X-Files and Friday Night Lights, in order, before closing with “May the Force be with you.”

Kal Penn, the actor and Obama White House staffer, took a crowd shot on his cellphone from the elevated stage and told demonstrators that the world film and television producers get to inhabit wouldn’t exist without writers. “CEOs cannot write scripts. Shareholders cannot write scripts, Studio executives cannot write scripts,” he said.

As proof, Penn read from a handful of producers notes attached to scripts written by some of his friends. One said, “Considering today’s sensibilities, when you discuss euthanasia, be sure that you do so in a positive light” — a suggestion that drew cackles from the audience.

Kal Penn
Kal Penn

The only current Democratic officeholder to speak, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, delivered a podium-thumping call for solidarity among all labor unions.

One of the most fiery speeches came from Oscar-nominated The Fabelmans screenwriter and Tony-winning Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, who criticized the members of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — and anyone backing them against the writers — in sweeping terms.

“If you’re supporting the AMPTP’s shameless endorsement of greed and injustice, then you’ve forgotten what fairness is and what decency is and what words like ‘honor’ and ‘honesty’ mean,” Kushner said. “It makes sense that you’ve forgotten the meaning of words. That’s what happens when you devalue writers; you lose language. We are writers We know what words mean. We know the difference between truth and malevolent, cynical, self-serving horseshit.”

“Being out on strike his really hard,” Kushner said. “It’s costly. It’s scary. It’s enervating and infuriating in equal measure. So workers go out on strike only when we have to. Workers strike not because we’re greedy but because our bosses are greedy.”

Tony Kushner
Tony Kushner

Josh Gondelman, a WGA captain and strike leader in New York and Emmy-winning former writer for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, served as emcee and introduced speakers including actors John Leguizamo, Broad City star and co-creator Ilana Glazer, and fantasy novelist turned screenwriter and showrunner Neil Gaiman.

The crowd also heard from Joe Opio, a young New York comedian and WGA member who was born in Uganda and joked that his accent marks him as someone who must be from Brooklyn (he lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side). “Like many of you, ”he said, “part of me is wondering, ‘How the hell did I end up on such a distinguished list of speakers?’”

RELATED: TV Shows Affected By WGA Strike: Updated List

Opio said he was one of the four writers who shut down production of the Paramount+ series Evil in the strike’s first week by picketing outside a studio in Brooklyn for eight hours.

“The only reason we succeeded is because the Teamsters and the IATSE crew members refused to cross our picket line the whole night,” Opio said to cheers. “So I learned a very valuable lesson that night: The other unions are willing and ready too stand in solidarity with us. All we have to do is turn up and form a picket line.”

Meanwhile, Oscar winner Susan Sarandon was an angry woman walking in Manhattan today:

Emmy winner and 14-time (!) nominee Sykes talked about “the survival of our industry”:

City on a Hill star and Crossing Jordan and Law & Order alum Jill Hennessy also was outside 30 Rock today:

Meanwhile, out on the West Coast, it was karaoke day outside Netflix HQ (apologies in advance to Rage Against the Machine and its fans):

A “construction project” surfaced suddenly outside Universal Studios:

The Batman writer-producer-director Matt Reeves hit the streets in Los Angeles today:

Jay Leno delivered more donuts to the picket line today outside Disney HQ in Burbank:

Girls Scouts to Leno: “We’ll see your donuts and raise you a stack of S’mores”:

The Vampire Diaries alum Nina Dobrev was out supporting striking writers outside the Paramount lot in Hollywood:

Erik Pedersen, Rosy Cordero, Matt Grobar, Natalie Sitek, Tom Tapp and Dominic Patten contributed to this report.

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